#169. At the zenith of complexity

THE ONSET OF “DE-GROWTH” AND “THE GREAT SECTOR EXTINCTION”

In the previous article, we examined the scope for tangible value destruction in the global financial system. In some future discussion, we might look at the very substantial empowerment that is being handed to environmental causes by some of the direct and indirect consequences of the Wuhan coronavirus crisis.

Here, though, the issue is the economy itself, and readers will understand that this interpretation is framed by the understanding that the economy is an energy dynamic, and not a financial one.

For those who like their conclusions up front, the single most important takeaway from what follows is that the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has triggered two fundamental changes that were, in reality, due to happen anyway.

One of these is a systemic financial crisis, and the other is the realisation that an era of increasingly-cosmetic economic “growth” has come to a decisive end.

The term which best describes what happens from here on is “de-growth”. This is a concept that some have advocated as a positive choice, but it is, in fact, being forced upon us by a relentless deterioration in the energy-driven equation which determines prosperity.

At its simplest, this means that the near-universal expectation of a future “economy of more” has been invalidated. We’re not, for example – and as so much planning has hitherto assumed – going to be driving more cars on yet more roads, and taking more flights between yet more airports. A seemingly-assured future of more consumption, more leisure, more travel, more wealth, more gadgets and more automation has, almost at a stroke, ceased to exist.  Economic considerations aside, the energy supply outlook alone has long since ceased to support any such assumptions.

More fundamentally, an economy which is shrinking is also one that will become progressively less complex. Whole sectors of activity will disappear through processes of simplification and de-layering. The pace of economic deterioration, and the rate at which the system de-complexifies, will be determined by identifiable factors which include falling utilization rates and the loss of critical mass in economic activities.

The inevitable arrives

Seen from the perspective of the energy-driven economy, the crisis is unveiling much that we already understood. Essentially, relentless increases in the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE) are the constant in an economic (and financial) narrative that has been unfolding ever since the 1990s, and which has long pointed, unequivocally, towards both falling prosperity and a “GFC II” sequel to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC).

Between 1990 and 2000, global trend ECoE rose from 2.6% to 4.1%, entering a level (between 3.5% and 5%) at which prior growth in the prosperity of the western Advanced Economies started to go into reverse. By 2008, when the world banking system was taken to the brink by the GFC, ECoE had already reached 5.6%.

The next critical point occurred during 2018-19, when trend ECoEs entered a higher band (between 8% and 10%) at which less complex, less ECoE-sensitive emerging market (EM) nations, too, start to experience a reversal of prior growth in prosperity. This latter event has confirmed that, after a remarkably long plateau, the prosperity of the world’s average person has turned down.

The financial and economic ‘high command’ has never understood this energy-based interpretation, and this incomprehension has created a parallel narrative of futile (and increasingly dangerous) financial adventurism.

This is why we can expect a GFC II-type event to coincide with a decisive downturn in the economy. Though the coronavirus crisis is acting as a trigger for these events, we should be in no doubt that both of them were due to happen anyway.

Welcome to de-growth

The term which best describes a downwards trajectory in prosperity is “de-growth”. Many have advocated de-growth as something that society ought voluntarily to adopt in its own best environmental and broader interests.

The surplus energy interpretation, though is that de-growth isn’t a choice that we might or might not make, but an economic inevitability.

Critically, de-growth doesn’t simply mean that the economy will become quantitatively smaller. It also means that much of the complexity which has developed in parallel with past economic expansion will go into reverse.

This de-complexifying process will have profound consequences. As well as determining the pace at which the economy shrinks, the retreat from complexity will impose changes on the shape, as well as the size, of the economy of the future.

Where the rate of prosperity deterioration is concerned, the interplay of two factors is going to prove critical.

One of these is the utilization effect, which describes changes in the relationship between the fixed and variable costs of the supply of goods and services. As utilization rates fall, the per-user share of fixed costs rises, and any attempt to pass such increases on to consumers is likely to accelerate the pace at which utilization rates fall.

The second operative trend is the critical mass effect. This describes the way in which supply processes are undermined by the lack of access to critical inputs. To a certain extent, suppliers of goods and services can work around this effect, by altering (and, in general, simplifying) both their products and their processes. Even so, there are limits to the ability to circumvent critical mass effects, and the likelihood is that capacity will decline, resulting in a corresponding reduction in the range of goods and services on offer to consumers.

Both the utilization and the critical mass factors introduce considerable uncertainty into the rate at which prosperity will deteriorate, but an even bigger imponderable is the combined impact of utilization and critical mass effects. It is easy to picture how these are likely to interact, with, for example, falling utilization rates removing inputs in a way that accelerates the loss of critical mass.

The end of “more”

One of the practical implications of this interpretation is that the current consensus about our economic future – a consensus which we might call ‘the economy of more’ – is becoming ever less plausible.

Until now, virtually all planning assumptions have been framed by this expectation of continuous expansion. We’re assured, for example, that by 2040, there will have been be a billion-unit (75%) rise in the world’s vehicle fleet (requiring more roads), whilst aviation passenger miles will have increased by about 90% (so we’ll need a lot more airport capacity).

These and similar projections are based on assumptions that we can consume about 28% more energy in 2040 than we do now, with petroleum and natural gas supply rising by, respectively, 10-12% and 30-32%. All of these consensus projections seem extremely unlikely to be realised, not least because of the crumbling economics of energy supply itself.

The miss-match between, on the one hand, the assumption of extrapolatory expansion in virtually all economic activities and, on the other, the improbability of the requisite growth in energy supply, seems never to have occurred to those whose plans inform the economic consensus.

What all of this means in practice is that projected rates of prosperity deterioration are conjectural, with probabilities favouring an acceleration in the pace of decline.

With this caveat understood, the base-case generated by SEEDS (the Surplus Energy Economics Data System) provides a useful reference-point for discussion. The model indicates that the average person worldwide will be poorer by 9.5% in 2030, and by fully 20% by 2040, than he or she is today. It follows from this, of course, that his or her ability to carry debt and other financial burdens – and to pay taxes – will be correspondingly impaired.

Fig. 1:

#169 03 prosperity regional

Simplification and de-layering

Two further trends, both of which are of fundamental importance, can be anticipated as consequences of the de-complexifying process.

One of these is simplification, which describes a rolling contraction in the breadth of choice on offer to consumers, and a corresponding contraction in systems of supply.

The second is de-layering, meaning the removal of intermediate economic processes.

The de-layering effect can be illustrated using food supply as a comparatively simple example (though the issues involved extend right across the gamut of products and services).

The pre-industrial system for supplying food had few stages between farmer and ultimate consumer. There were, to be sure, millers, carters, coopers, green-grocers, butchers and a number of other trades operative between producer and customer, but there was nothing on the scale of today’s plethora of intervening layers, which run from fertilizer suppliers and agricultural consultants at one end of the spectrum through to packaging and marketing consultants at the other.

Looking ahead, the application of simplification and delayering to the chain of food supply suggests that, whilst product choices will narrow (ten sorts of breakfast cereal, perhaps, rather than fifty), some of the intervening layers will contract, whilst others will disappear altogether. Simpler products and simpler product ranges require fewer intermediate stages.

Extended across the economy as a whole, the implication is that we face what might be called a “great extinction” of trades, specialisations and, indeed, of whole sectors. As and when this forward trend gains recognition, it’s likely that businesses and individuals will endeavour to withdraw from activities which are at high risk of being de-layered out of existence.

Surveying new horizons

The economic processes described here are going to have far-reaching implications, most of which will be matters for subsequent discussion. First, though, it makes sense to recap the critical points of the foregoing.

The fundamental change now in prospect is that economic de-growth will set in, and will eliminate most of the expectations hitherto covered by the term “the economy of more”. The rate at which the economy shrinks (and the average person becomes less prosperous) will be influenced by a number of variables, of which critical mass and utilization effects are amongst the most important.

A reasonable working assumption, generated by SEEDS, is that people are going to get poorer at annual rates of about 1%, though there will, needless to say, be major regional and national variations around this trend.

This rate may not sound all that dramatic – though we need to bear in mind that it might worsen – but the shock effects of the onset of de-growth are likely to be profound, not just in the economic and financial spheres, but socially and politically as well.

As the economy gets smaller, it will also become less complex. Central strands here are likely to include both simplification (of products and of processes) and de-layering. The latter will involve contraction in some areas of activity, and the elimination of others.

The coronavirus crisis itself is providing us with a foretaste of some of these anticipated trends. In economic terms, the most important effect of the crisis is the hiatus in the cash flows of businesses and households. The consequent need to conserve cash (and to avoid going further into debt under circumstances of extreme uncertainty) is inducing conservatism into economic behaviour.

Companies and families alike are imposing new and tougher criteria on their expenditures, meaning that households are cutting back on “discretionary” (non-essential) spending, whilst businesses are minimising outgoings wherever they can. Companies are likely to make severe cuts in their marketing spend (because there’s not much point in advertising things that customers can’t or won’t buy), and will seek to renegotiate (meaning reduce) rents, outsourcing costs and other overhead expenses.

If – as seems very likely – this event marks (though it will not have caused) the onset of de-growth, it’s probable that newly conservative attitudes will continue. Consumers are unlikely to go back to “splashing the cash”, even when (or if) something nearer to “normality” is restored. Businesses which have, for example, downsized promotional expenditures and simplified their operations, are unlikely to revert to former spending patterns.

In short, this crisis may well have kick-started the processes of simplification and de-layering described above. Both of these processes can be expected to shrink some areas of economic activity and, in some cases, to eliminate them altogether.

Finally, these effects are highly likely to be reflected in other spheres, causing major attitudinal changes. Voters can, for example, be expected to be more supportive of essential public services, and less tolerant of perceived excesses in the private sector.

Governments themselves are likely, in due course, to recognise the risk of contraction in their tax bases and will, in any case, have gone much further into debt as a direct consequence of the crisis. Pressure for redistribution, and a generally heightened emphasis on economic issues, were pre-existing political consequences of deteriorating discretionary (“in your pocket”) prosperity.

At the same time, it is surely self-evident that governments cannot risk repeating policies which, rightly or wrongly, have been encapsulated into a popular post-GFC narrative of “rescue for the wealthiest, austerity for everyone else”.

CORONAVIRUS – THE ECONOMICS OF DE-GROWTH

#161. A welcome initiative

MR CUMMINGS’ BOLD ENDEAVOUR

As we’ve been discussing here, Dominic Cummings, senior policy advisor to British premier Boris Johnson, has issued a clarion call for “data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos” and others to join an effort to transform the workings of government.

Here is how Mr Cummings defines his objectives:

“We want to improve performance and make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant. At the moment I have to make decisions well outside what Charlie Munger calls my ‘circle of competence’ and we do not have the sort of expertise supporting the PM and ministers that is needed. This must change fast so we can properly serve the public”.

Let me start by making two points about this initiative. The first is to commend Mr Cummings for taking it. New thinking is needed as never before in government, not just in Britain but around the World.

The second is that I think Mr Cummings has a better-than-evens chance of success. He’s not the first person in government to try to think “the unthinkable” or “outside the box”, but conditions do look propitious.

The long-running political guerrilla war over “Brexit” has had a numbing effect in numerous important areas, not just on policy but on constructive debate, so there’s a lot of catching up to do. My hunch (and it’s not much more than that) is that Mr Johnson is more open than his predecessors to genuinely new thinking. Additionally, of course, his large Parliamentary majority will help very considerably.

So, too, will the fact that his Labour opponents are in such disarray that they might even replace Mr Corbyn with somebody who still thinks that trying to stymy the voters’ decision over leaving the EU was a good idea. Labour, it should be said, has a vital part to play in the political discourse, but cannot do this effectively until it reinstalls issues of economic inequality at the top of its agenda.

Lastly, and notwithstanding the kind (and beyond-my-merits) encouragement of some contributors here, I’m not going to be sending my CV to Downing Street. This, at least, frees me to muse on what I would be saying if I were submitting an application.

First and foremost, I’d urge Mr Cummings to recognize that the economy is an energy system. This will require no explanation to regular visitors here, but I would add that this interpretation can enable us to place our thinking about economics on a scientific footing. The ‘conventional’ form of economics which portrays the economy in purely financial terms may or may not be “gloomy”, but it certainly isn’t a “science”. We’ve spent the best part of two decades finding out that ‘tried and tested’ financial paradigms range from the incomplete to the outright mistaken, and that pulling financial levers doesn’t work.

Mr Cummings won’t need me to tell him that paying people to borrow (as we’ve been doing ever since 2008), whilst penalising savers, is a very bad idea. I’m sure he will appreciate, too, that trying to run a supposedly “capitalist” system without positive returns on capital is a contradiction in terms. Moreover, those of us who believe in the proper working of markets cannot applaud a situation in which asset prices are propped up by intervention. Any country which deliberately supports over-inflated property prices ought to face tough questioning from the younger members of the electorate.

Second, I’d suggest to Mr Cummings that recognition of the energy-determined character of the economy reframes the debate about the environment. I would steer him towards sources which debunk the illogical notion that we can “de-couple” the economy from the use of energy. Economic prosperity, and the broader well-being embodied in environmental and ecological issues, share the common axis of energy.

Getting into the nitty-gritty, and being wholly candid about the situation, I would go on to contend that the energy equation, which hitherto has driven our prosperity upwards, has turned against us. That, after all, is why we’ve been trying one financial gimmick after another in an effort to convince ourselves that “growth” in our prosperity is continuing, when a huge amount of evidence surely demonstrates that it is not.

In the United Kingdom, “growth” (of 26%) between 2003 and 2018 added £430 billion to GDP, but at the cost of £2.16 trillion in net borrowing. You don’t need a degree in advanced mathematics to recognize that borrowing £5 in order to purchase “growth” of £1 isn’t a sustainable plan.

In Britain, as in most other Western countries, a very large part of the “growth” recorded in recent years has been a simple function of spending borrowed money. If we stopped borrowing (leaving debt where it is now), rates of growth would gravitate to somewhere barely above zero. Trying to reduce debt to its level at some earlier time would eliminate a lot of the “growth” recorded in the past into reverse, leaving GDP a lot lower than it is today.

Adding rising ECoEs into the equation, I would seek to demonstrate that the prosperity of the average Western citizen has been deteriorating for more than a decade. Increasing taxation, meanwhile, has been making this worse. Over a fifteen-year period in which the average British person has become £2,570 (10%) less prosperous, his or her burden of tax has increased by £2,240.

Of course, one cannot expect statistical, model-based numbers to make a wholly persuasive case, especially when the techniques involved avowedly ditch conventional notations. But I would urge Mr Cummings to look at a range of other indicators in order to triangulate some conclusions. Such indicators would include homelessness, the relentless rise of consumer credit, the dependency of the economy on credit-funded consumption, the associated symptoms of debt distress, and the millions generally recognized to be “just about managing”. He could reflect, too, on correlations that can be drawn between adverse trends in prosperity and rising public discontent, whether on the streets of Paris or in the voting booths of the United States and much of Europe.

Finally, none of this would be presented as a cause for despair. Accepting that government cannot make people richer doesn’t involve concluding that it cannot make them more contented.

The smart move at this point is to recognize what’s really happening, steal a march on those still in ignorance and denial, and work out how to improve the quality, both of people’s lives and of the society in which they live.

#150: The management of hardship

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS IN AN AGE OF DETERIORATING PROSPERITY

Though just over a month has passed since the previous article (for which apologies), work here hasn’t slackened. Rather, I’ve been concentrating on three issues, all of them important, and all of them topics where a recognition of the energy basis of the economy can supply unique insights.

The first of these is the insanity which says that no amount of financial recklessness is ever going to drive us over a cliff, because creating new money out of thin air is our “get out of gaol free card” in all circumstances.

This isn’t the place for the lengthy explanation of why this won’t work, but the short version is that we’re now trying to do for money what we so nearly did to the banks in 2008.

The second subject is the very real threat posed by environmental degradation, where politicians are busy assuring the public that the problem can be fixed without subjecting voters to any meaningful inconvenience – and, after all, anyone who can persuade the public that electric vehicles are “zero emissions” could probably sell sand to the Saudis.

And this takes us to the third issue, the tragicomedy that it is contemporary politics – indeed, it might reasonably be said that, between them, the Élysée and Westminster, in particular, offer combinations of tragedy, comedy and farce that even the most daring of theatre directors would blush to present.

From a surplus energy perspective, the political situation is simply stated.

SEEDS analysis of prosperity reveals that the average person in almost every Western country has been getting poorer for at least a decade.

Governments, which continue to adhere to outdated paradigms based on a purely financial interpretation of the economy, remain blind to the voters’ plight – and, all too often, this blindness looks a lot like indifference. Much of the tragedy of politics, and much of its comedy, too, can be traced to this fundamental contradiction between what policymakers think is happening, and what the public knows actually is.

Nowhere is the gap in comprehension, and the consequent gulf between governing and governed, more extreme than in France – so that’s as good a place as any to begin our analysis.

The French dis-connection

Let’s start with the numbers, all of which are stated in euros at constant 2018 values, with the most important figures set out in the table below.

Between 2008 and 2018, French GDP increased by 9.4%, equivalent to an improvement of 5.0% at the per capita level, after adjustment for a 4.2% rise in population numbers. This probably leads the authorities to believe that the average person has been getting at least gradually better off so, on material grounds at least, he or she hasn’t got too much to grumble about.

Here’s how different these numbers look when examined using SEEDS. For starters, growth of 9.4% since 2008 has increased recorded GDP by €201bn, but this has been accompanied by a huge €2 trillion (40%) rise in debt over the same decade. Put another way, each €1 of “growth” has come at a cost of €9.90 in net new debt, which is a ruinously unsustainable ratio. SEEDS analysis indicates that most of that “growth” – in fact, more than 90% of it – has been nothing more substantial than the simple spending of borrowed money.

#150 France SEEDS summary

This is important, for at least three main reasons.

First, and most obviously, a reported increase of €1,720 in GDP per capita has been accompanied by a rise of almost €27,500 in each person’s share of aggregate household, business and government debt.

Second, if France ever stopped adding to its stock of debt, underlying growth would fall, SEEDS calculates, to barely 0.2%, a rate which is lower than the pace at which population numbers are growing (about 0.5% annually).

Third, much of the “growth” recorded in recent years would unwind if France ever tried to deleverage its balance sheet.

Then there’s the trend energy cost of energy (ECoE), a critical component of economic performance, and which, in France, has risen from 5.9% in 2008 to 8.0% last year. Adjustment for ECoE reduces prosperity per person in 2018 to €27,200, a far cry from reported per capita GDP of €36,290. Moreover, personal prosperity is lower now than it was back in 2008 (€28,710 per capita).

Thus far, these numbers are not markedly out of line with the rate at which prosperity has been falling in comparable economies over the same period. The particular twist, where France is concerned, is that taxation per person has increased, by €2,140 (12%) since 2008. This has had the effect of leveraging a 5.3% (€1,510) decline in overall personal prosperity into a slump of 32% (€3,650) at the level of discretionary, ‘left in your pocket’ prosperity.

At this level of measurement, the average French person’s discretionary prosperity is now only €7,760, compared with €11,410 ten years ago.

And that hurts.

Justified anger

Knowing this, one can hardly be surprised that French voters rejected all established parties at the last presidential election, flirting with the nationalist right and the far left before opting for Mr Macron. Neither can it be any surprise at all that between 72% and 80% of French citizens support he aims of the gilets jaunes (yellow waistcoat) protestors. “Robust” law enforcement, whilst it might just temper the manifestation of this discontent, will have the almost inevitable side-effect of exacerbating the mistrust of the incumbent government.

Because energy-based analysis gives us insights not available to the authorities, we’re in a position to understand the sheer folly of some French government policies, both before and since the start of the protests.

From the outset, there were reasons to suspect that the gloss of Mr Macron’s campaign hid a deep commitment to failed economic nostrums. These nostrums include the bizarre belief that an economy can be energized by undermining the rights and rewards of working people – the snag being, of course, that the circumstances of these same workers determine demand in the economy.

After all, if low wages were a recipe for prosperity, Ghana would be richer than Germany, and Swaziland more prosperous than Switzerland.

Handing out huge tax cuts to a tiny minority of the already very wealthiest, though always likely to be at the forefront of Mr Macron’s agenda, looks idiotically provocative when seen in the context of deteriorating average prosperity. Creating a national dialogue over the protestors’ grievances might have made sense, but choosing a political insider to preside over it, at a reported monthly salary of €14,666, reinforced a widespread suspicion that the Grand Debat is no more than an exercise in distraction undertaken by an administration wholly out of touch with voters’ circumstances.

Whilst Mr Macron has appeared flexible over some fiscal demands, he has ruled out increasing the tax levied on the wealthiest. This intransigence is likely to prove the single biggest blunder of his presidency.

Even the tragic fire at Notre Dame has been mishandled by the government, in ways seemingly calculated to intensify suspicion. Rather than insisting that the restoration of the state-owned Cathedral would be funded by the government, the authorities made the gaffe of welcoming offers of financial support from some of the most conspicuously wealthy people in France.

This prompted some to wonder when corporate logos would start to appear on the famous towers, and others to ask why, if the wealthiest wanted to make a contribution, they couldn’t have been asked to do so by paying more tax. It didn’t help that the authorities rushed to declare the fire an accident, long before the experts could possibly have had evidence sufficient to rule out more malign explanations. After all, in an atmosphere of mistrust, conspiracy theories thrive.

The broader picture

The reason for looking at the French predicament in some detail is that the problems facing the authorities in Paris are different only in degree, and not in direction or nature, from those confronting other Western governments.

The British political impasse over “Brexit”, for instance, can be traced to the same lack of awareness of what is really happening to the prosperity of the voters – whilst “Brexit” itself divides the electorate, there is something far closer to unanimity over a narrative that politicians are as ineffectual as they are self-serving, and are out of touch with real public concerns. Similar factors inform popular discontent in many other European countries, even when this discontent is articulated over issues other than the deterioration in prosperity.

At the most fundamental level, the problem has two components.

The first is that the average person is getting poorer, and is also getting less secure, and deeper into debt.

The second is that governments don’t understand this issue, an incomprehension which, to increasing numbers of voters, looks like indifference.

It has to be said that governments have no excuses for this lack of understanding. The prosperity of the average person in most Western countries began to fall more than a decade ago, and any politician even reasonably conversant with the circumstances and opinions of the typical voter ought to be aware of it, even if he or she lacks the interpretation or the information required to explain it.

Governments whose economic advisers and macroeconomic models are still failing to identify the slump in prosperity need new advisers, and new models.

A disastrous consensus

Though incomprehension (and adherence to failed economic interpretations) is the kernel of the problem, it has been compounded by the mix of philosophies adopted since the 1990s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, an informal consensus was created in which the Left accepted the market economics paradigm, and the centre-Right tried to be ‘progressive’ on social issues.

Both moves robbed voters of choices.

Though the social policy dimension lies outside our focus on the economy, the creation of a pro-market ‘centre-Left’ has turned out to have been nothing less than a disaster. Specifically, it has had two, woefully adverse consequences.

The first was that the Left’s adoption of its opponents’ economic orthodoxy destroyed the balance of opposing philosophies which, hitherto, had kept in place the ‘mixed economy’, a model which aims to combine the best of the private and the public sector provision. The emergence of Britain’s “New Labour”, and its overseas equivalents, eliminated the checks and balances which, historically, had acted to rein in extremes.

Put another way, the traditional ‘Left versus Right’ debate created constructive tensions which forced both sides to hone their messages, as well as preventing a lurch into extremism which, whilst it might sometimes be good politics, is invariably very bad economics.

The second, of course, was that the new centre-ground – variously dubbed the “Washington consensus”, the “Anglo-American model” and “neoliberalism” – has proved to be an utterly disastrous exercise in economic extremism. One after another, its tenets have failed, creating massive indebtedness, huge financial risk and widening inequality before finally presiding over the wholesale replacement of market principles with the “caveat emptor” free-for-all of what I’ve labelled “junglenomics”.

As well as undermining economic efficiency, these developments have created extremely harmful divisions in society. Whilst Thomas Piketty’s thesis about the divergence of returns on capital and labour is not persuasive, the reality since 2008 has been that asset prices have soared, whilst incomes have stagnated. This process, which has been the direct result of monetary policy, has rewarded those who already owned assets in 2008, and has done nothing for the less fortunate majority.

There is a valid argument, of course, which states that the authorities’ adoption of ultra-cheap money during and after the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC I) was the only course of action available.

But the role of policymakers is to pursue the overall good within whatever the economic and financial context happens to be. So, when central bankers launched programmes clearly destined to create massive inflation in asset prices, governments should have responded with fiscal measures tailored to capture at least some of these gains for the unfavoured majority.

Simply put, the unleashing of ZIRP and QE made a compelling case for the simultaneous introduction of higher taxes on capital gains, complemented by wealth taxes in those countries where these did not already exist.

Failure to do this has hardened incompatible positions. Those whose property values have soared insist, often with absolute sincerity, that their paper enrichment is the product entirely of their own diligence and effort, owes nothing to the luck of being in the right place at the right time, has had nothing whatever to do with the price inflation injected into property markets (in particular) by ultra-cheap monetary policies, and hasn’t happened at the expense of others.

For any younger person, often unable to afford or even find somewhere to live, it is necessarily infuriating to be lectured by fortunate elders on the virtues of saving and hard work.

It’s a bit like a lottery winner criticizing you for buying the wrong ticket.

A workable future

The silver lining to these various clouds is that future policy directions have been simplified, with the paramount objectives being (a) the healing of divisions, and (b) managing the deterioration in prosperity in ways that maximise efficiency and minimise division.

Any government which understands what prosperity is and where it is going will also reach some obvious but important conclusions.

The first is that prosperity issues have risen higher on the political agenda, and will go on doing so, pushing other issues down the scale of importance.

The second conclusion, which carries with it what is probably the single most obvious policy implication, is that redistribution is becoming an ever more important issue. There are two very good reasons for this hardening in sentiment.

For starters, popular tolerance of inequality is linked to trends in prosperity – resentment at “the rich” is muted when most people are themselves getting better off, but this tolerance very soon evaporates when subjected to the solvent of generalised hardship.

Additionally, the popular narrative of the years since 2008 portrays “austerity” as the price paid by the many for the rescue of the few. The main reason why this narrative is so compelling is that, fundamentally, it is true.

The need for redistribution is reinforced by realistic appraisal of the fiscal outlook. Anyone who is aware of deteriorating prosperity has to be aware that this has adverse implications for forward revenues. By definition, only prosperity can be taxed, because taxing incomes below the level of prosperity simply drives people into hardships whose alleviation increases public expenditures.

In France, for example, aggregate national prosperity is no higher now (at €1.76tn) than it was in 2008, but taxation has increased by 17% over that decade. Looking ahead, the continuing erosion of prosperity implies that rates of taxation on the average person will need to fall, unless the authorities wish further to tighten the pressure on the typical taxpayer.

Even the inescapable increase in the taxation of the very wealthiest isn’t going to change a scenario that dictates lower taxes, and correspondingly lower public expenditures, as prosperity erodes.

A new centre of gravity?

The adverse outlook for government revenues is one reason why the political Left cannot expect power to fall into its hands simply as a natural consequence of the crumbling of failed centre-Right incumbencies. Those on the Left keen to refresh their appeal by cleansing their parties of the residues of past compromises have logic on their side, but will depart from logic if they offer agendas based on ever higher levels of public expenditures.

With prosperity – and, with it, the tax base – shrinking, promising anything that looks like “tax and spend” has become a recipe for policy failure and voter disillusionment. This said, so profound has been the failure of the centre-Right ascendancy that opportunities necessarily exist for anyone on the Left who is able to recast his or her agenda on the basis of economic reality.

Tactically, the best way forward for the Left is to shift the debate on equality back to the material, restoring the primacy of the Left’s traditional concentration on the differences and inequities between rich and poor.

On economic as well as fiscal and social issues, we ought to see the start of a “research arms race”, as parties compete to be the first to absorb, and profit from, the recognition of economic realities that are no longer (if they ever truly were) identified by outdated methods of economic interpretation.

Historically, the promotion of ideological extremes has always been a costly luxury, so is likely to fall victim to processes that are making luxuries progressively less affordable. Voters can be expected to turn away from the extremes of pro- public- or private-sector promotion, seeing neither as a solution to their problems.

This, it is to be hoped, can lead to a renaissance in the idea of the mixed economy, which seeks to get the best out of private and public provision, without pandering to the excesses of either. Restoration of this balance, from the position where we are now, means rolling back much of the privatization and outsourcing undertaken, often recklessly, over the last three decades.

Both the private and the public sectors will need to undergo extensive reforms if governments are to craft effective agendas for using the mixed economy to mitigate the worst effects of deteriorating prosperity.

In the private sector, governments could do a lot worse than study Adam Smith, paying particular attention to the explicit priority placed by him on promoting competition and tackling excessive market concentration, and recognizing, too, the importance both of ethics and of effective regulation, both of which are implicit in his recognition that markets will not stay free or fair if left to their own devices.

For the public sector, both generally and at the level of detail, there will need to be a renewed emphasis on the setting of priorities. With resource limitations set not just to continue but to intensify, health systems, for example, will need to become a lot clearer on which services they can, and cannot, afford to fund.

Starting from here

Though this discussion can be no more than a primer for discussion, there are two points on which we can usefully conclude.

First, a useful opening step in the crafting of new politics would be the introduction of “clean hands” principles, designed to prove that government isn’t, as it can so often appear, something conducted “by the rich, for the rich”.

Second, it would be helpful if governments rolled back their inclinations towards macho posturing and intimidation.

A “clean hands” initiative wouldn’t mean that elected representatives would be paid less than currently they are. There is an essential public interest in attracting able and ambitious people into government service, so there’s nothing to be said for hair-shirt commitments to penury. In most European countries, politicians are not overpaid, and it’s arguable that their salaries ought, in some cases at least, to be higher.

There is, though, a real problem, albeit one that is easily remedied. This problem lies in the perception that politics has become a “road to riches”, with policymakers retiring into the wealth bestowed on them by the corporate sponsors of ‘consultancies’ and “the lecture circuit”. This necessarily creates suspicion that rewards are being conferred for services rendered, a suspicion that is corrosive of public trust, even where it isn’t actually true.

The easy fix for this is to cap the earnings of former ministers and administrators at levels which are generous, but are well short of riches. The formula suggested here in a previous discussion would impose an annual income limit at 10x GDP per capita, which is about £315,000 in Britain, with not-dissimilar figures applying in other countries. It seems reasonable to conclude that anyone who thinks that £300,000, or its equivalent, “isn’t enough” is likely to have gone into politics for the wrong reasons.

Where treatment of the “ordinary” person is concerned, there ought, in the future, be no room for the intimidatory practices which have become ever more popular with governments whose real authority has been weakened by failure.

One illustrative example is the system by which council tax (local taxation) arrears are collected in Britain. At present, the typical homeowner pays £1,671 annually, in ten monthly instalments. If someone misses a payment, however, he or she is then required to pay the entire annual amount almost immediately, compounded by court costs of £84 and bailiff fees of £310. Quite apart from the inappropriateness of involving the courts or employing bailiffs, it’s hard to see how somebody struggling to pay £167 is supposed to find £2,067.

This same kind of intimidation occurs when people are penalized for staying a few minutes over a parking permit, or for exceeding a speed limit by a fractional extent. Here, part of the problem arises from providing financial incentives to those enforcing regulations, a practice that should be abandoned by any government aware of the need to start narrowing the chasm between governing and governed.

We cannot escape the conclusion that the task of government, always a thankless one even when confined to sharing out the benefits of growth, is going to become very difficult indeed as prosperity continues to deteriorate.

There might, though, be positives to be found in a process which ditches ideological extremes, uses the mixed economy as the basis for the equitable mitigation of decline, and seeks to rebuild relationships between discredited governments and frustrated citizens.

#149: The big challenges

HOW THE ECONOMICS OF ENERGY VIEWS THE AGENDA

As regular readers will know, this site is driven by the understanding that the economy is an energy system, and not (as conventional thinking assumes) a financial one. Though we explore a wide range of related issues (such as the conclusion that energy supply is going to need monetary subsidy), it’s important that we never lose sight of the central thesis. So I hope you’ll understand the need for a periodic restatement of the essentials.

If you’re new to Surplus Energy Economics, what this site offers is a coherent interpretation of economic and financial trends from a radically different standpoint. This enables us to understand issues that increasingly baffle conventional explanations.

This perspective is a practical one – nobody conversant with the energy-based interpretation was much surprised, for instance, when Donald Trump was elected to the White House, when British voters opted for “Brexit”, or when a coalition of insurgents (aka “populists”) took power in Rome. The SEE interpretation of prosperity trends also goes a long way towards explaining the gilets jaunes protests in France, protests than can be expected in due course to be replicated in countries such as the Netherlands. We’re also unpersuaded by the exuberant consensus narrative of the Chinese economy. The proprietary SEEDS model has proved a powerful tool for the interpretation of critical trends in economics, finance and government.

The aim here, though, isn’t simply to restate the core interpretation. Rather, there are three trends to be considered, each of which is absolutely critical, and each of which is gathering momentum. The aim here is to explore these trends, and share and discuss the interpretations of them made possible by surplus energy economics.

The first such trend is the growing inevitability of a second financial crisis (GFC II), which will dwarf the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), whilst differing radically from it in nature.

The second is the progressive undermining of political incumbencies and systems, a process resulting from the widening divergence between policy assumption and economic reality.

The third is the clear danger that the current, gradual deterioration in global prosperity could accelerate into something far more damaging, disruptive and dangerous.

The vital insight

The centrality of the economy is the delivery of goods and services, literally none of which can be supplied without energy. It follows that the economy is an energy system (and not a financial one), with money acting simply as a claim on output which is itself made possible only by the availability of energy. Money has no intrinsic worth, and commands ‘value’ only in relation to the things for which it can be exchanged – and all of those things rely entirely on energy.

Critically, all economic output (other than the supply of energy itself) is the product of surplus energy – whenever energy is accessed, some energy is always consumed in the access process, and surplus energy is what remains after the energy cost of energy (ECoE) has been deducted from the total (or ‘gross’) amount that is accessed.

This makes ECoE a critical determinant of prosperity. The distinguishing feature of the world economy over the last two decades has been the relentless rise in ECoE. This process necessarily undermines prosperity, because it erodes the available quantity of surplus energy. We’re already seeing this happen – Western prosperity growth has gone into reverse, and progress in emerging market (EM) economies is petering out. Global average prosperity has already turned down.

The trend in ECoE is determined by four main factors. Historically, ECoE has been pushed downwards by broadening geographical reach and increasing economies of scale. Where oil, natural gas and coal are concerned, these positive factors have been exhausted, so the dominating driver of ECoE now is depletion, a process which occurs because we have, quite naturally, accessed the most profitable (lowest ECoE) resources first, leaving costlier alternatives for later.

The fourth driver of ECoE is technology, which accelerates downwards tendencies in ECoE, and mitigates upwards movements. Technology, though, operates within the physical properties of the resource envelope, and cannot ‘overrule’ the laws of physics. This needs to be understood as a counter to some of the more glib and misleading extrapolatory assumptions about our energy future.

The nature of the factors driving ECoE indicates that this critical factor should be interpreted as a trend. According to SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – the trend ECoE of fossil fuels has risen exponentially, from 2.6% in 1990 to 4.1% in 2000, 6.7% in 2010 and 9.9% today. Since fossil fuels continue to account for four-fifths of energy supply, the trend in overall world ECoE has followed a similarly exponential path, and has now reached 8.0%, compared with 5.9% in 2010 and 3.9% in 2000.

For fossil fuels alone, trend ECoE is projected to reach 11.8% by 2025, and 13.5% by 2030. SEEDS interpretation demonstrates that an ECoE of 5% has been enough to put prosperity growth into reverse in highly complex Western economies, whilst less complex emerging market (EM) economies hit a similar climacteric at ECoEs of about 10%. A world economy dependent on fossil fuels thus faces deteriorating prosperity and diminishing complexity, both of which pose grave managerial challenges because they lie wholly outside our prior experience.

Mitigation, not salvation

This interpretation – reinforced by climate change considerations – forces us to regard a transition towards renewables as a priority. It should not be assumed, however, that renewables offer an assured escape from the implications of rising ECoEs, still less that they offer a solution that is free either of pain or of a necessity for social adaption.

There are three main cautionary factors around the ECoE capabilities of solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy.

The first cautionary factor is “the fallacy of extrapolation”, the natural – but often mistaken – human tendency to assume that what happens in the future will be an indefinite continuation of the recent past. It’s easy to assume that, because the ECoEs of renewables have been falling over an extended period, they must carry on falling indefinitely, at a broadly similar pace. But the reality is much more likely to be that cost-reducing progress in renewables will slow when it starts to collide with the limits imposed by physics.

Second, projections for cost reduction ignore the derivative nature of renewables. Building, say, a solar panel, a wind turbine or an electrical distribution system requires inputs currently only available courtesy of the use of fossil fuels. In this specialised sense, solar and wind are not so much ‘primary renewables’ as ‘secondary applications of primary fossil input’.

We may reach the point where these technologies become ‘truly renewable’, in that their inputs (such as minerals and plastics) can be supplied without help from oil, gas or coal.

But we are certainly, at present, nowhere near such a breakthrough. Until and unless this point is reached, the danger exists that that the ECoE of renewables may start to rise, pushed back upwards by the rising ECoE of the fossil fuel sources on which so many of their inputs rely.

The third critical consideration is that, even if renewables were able to stabilise ECoE at, say, 8% or so, that would not be anywhere near low enough.

Global prosperity stopped growing before ECoE hit 6%. British prosperity has been in decline ever since ECoE reached 3.6%, and an ECoE of 5.5% has been enough to push Western prosperity growth into reverse. As recently as the 1960s, in what we might call a “golden age” of prosperity growth, ECoE was well below 2%. Even if renewables could stabilise ECoE at, say, 8% – and that’s an assumption which owes much more to hope than calculation – it wouldn’t be low enough to enable prosperity to stabilise, let alone start to grow again.

SEEDS projections are that overall world ECoE will reach 9% by 2025, 9.7% by 2030 and 11% by 2040. These projections are comparatively optimistic, in that progress with renewables is expected to blunt the rate of increase in trend ECoE. But we should labour under no illusion that the downwards tendency in prosperity can be stemmed, less still reversed. Renewables can give us time to prepare and respond, but are not going to take us back to a nirvana of low-cost energy.

This brings us to the three critical issues driven by rising ECoE and diminishing prosperity.

Challenge #1 – financial shock

An understanding of the energy basis of the economy puts us in possession of a coherent narrative of recent and continuing tendencies in economics and finance. Financially, in particular, the implications are disquieting. There is overwhelming evidence pointing towards a repetition of the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), in a different form and at a very much larger scale.

From the late 1990s, with ECoEs rising beyond 4%, growth in Western prosperity began to peter out. Though “secular stagnation” was (and remains) the nearest that conventional interpretation has approached to understanding this issue, deceleration was noticed sufficiently to prompt the response known here as “credit adventurism”.

This took the form of making credit not only progressively cheaper to service but also much easier to obtain. This policy was also, in part, aimed at boosting demand undermined by the outsourcing of highly-skilled, well-paid jobs as a by-product of ‘globalization’. “Credit adventurism” was facilitated by economic doctrines which were favourable to deregulation, and which depicted debt as being of little importance.

The results, of course, are now well known. Between 2000 and 2007, each $1 of reported growth in GDP was accompanied by $2.08 of net new borrowing, though ratios were far higher in those Western economies at the forefront of credit adventurism. The deregulatory process also facilitated a dangerous weakening of the relationship between risk and return. These trends led directly to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Responses to the GFC had the effect of hard-wiring a second, far more serious crash into the system. Though public funds were used to rescue banks, monetary policy was the primary instrument. This involved slashing policy rates to sub-inflation levels, and using newly-created money to drive bond prices up, and yields down.

This policy cocktail added “monetary adventurism” to the credit variety already being practiced. Since 2007, each dollar of reported growth has come at a cost of almost $3.30 in new debt. Practices previously confined largely to the West have now spread to most EM economies. For example, over a ten-year period in which growth has averaged 6.5%, China has typically borrowed 23% of GDP annually.

Most of the “growth” supposedly created by monetary adventurism has been statistically cosmetic, consisting of nothing more substantial than the simple spending of borrowed money. According to SEEDS, 66% of all “growth” since 2007 has fallen into this category, meaning that this growth would cease were the credit impulse to slacken, and would reverse if we ever attempted balance sheet retrenchment. As a result, policies said to have been “emergency” and “temporary” in nature have, de facto, become permanent. We can be certain that tentative efforts at restoring monetary normality would be thrown overboard at the first sign of squalls.

Advocates of ultra-loose monetary policy have argued that the creation of new money, and the subsidizing of borrowing, are not inflationary, and point at subdued consumer prices in support of this contention. However, inflation ensuing from the injection of cheap money can be expected to appear at the point at which the new liquidity is injected, which is why the years since 2008 have been characterised by rampant inflation in asset prices. Price and wage inflation have been subdued, meanwhile, by consumer caution – reflected in reduced monetary velocity – and by the deflationary pressures of deteriorating prosperity. The current situation can best be described as a combination of latent (potential) inflation and dangerously over-inflated asset prices.

All of the above points directly to a second financial crisis (GFC II), though this is likely to differ in nature, as well as in scale, from GFC I. Because “credit adventurism” was the prime cause of the 2008 crash, its effects were concentrated in the credit (banking) system. But GFC II, resulting instead from “monetary adventurism”, will this time put the monetary system at risk, hazarding the viability of fiat currencies.

In addition to mass defaults, and collapses in asset prices, we should anticipate that currency crises, accompanied by breakdowns of trust in currencies, will be at the centre of GFC II. The take-off of inflation should be considered likely, not least because no other process exists for the destruction of the real value of gargantuan levels of debt.

Finally on this topic, it should be noted that policies used in response to 2008 will not work in the context of GFC II. Monetary policy can be used to combat debt excesses, but problems of monetary credibility cannot, by definition, be countered by increasing the quantity of money. Estimates based on SEEDS suggest that GFC II will be at least four orders of magnitude larger than GFC I.

Challenge #2 – breakdown of government

Until about 2000, the failure of conventional economics to understand the energy basis of economic activity didn’t matter too much, because ECoE wasn’t large enough to introduce serious distortions into its conclusions. Put another way, the exclusion of ECoE gave results which remained within accepted margins of error.

The subsequent surge in ECoEs, however, has caused the progressive invalidation of all interpretations from which it is excluded.

What applies to conventional economics itself applies equally to organisations, and most obviously to governments, which use it as the basis of their interpretations of policy.

The consequence has been to drive a wedge between policy assumptions made by governments, and underlying reality as experienced by individuals and households. Even at the best of times – which these are not – this sort of ‘perception gap’ between governing and governed has appreciable dangers.

Recent experience in the United Kingdom illustrates this process. Between 2008 and 2018, GDP per capita increased by 4%, implying that the average person had become better off, albeit not by very much. Over the same period, however, most (85%) of the recorded “growth” in the British economy had been the cosmetic effect of credit injection, whilst ECoE had risen markedly. For the average person, then, SEEDS calculates that prosperity has fallen, by £2,220 (9%), to £22,040 last year from £24,260 ten years previously. At the same time, individual indebtedness has risen markedly.

With this understood, neither the outcome of the 2016 “Brexit” referendum nor the result of the 2017 general election was much of a surprise, since voters neither (a) reward governments which preside over deteriorating prosperity, nor (b) appreciate those which are ignorant of their plight. This was why SEEDS analysis saw a strong likelihood both of a “Leave” victory and of a hung Parliament, outcomes dismissed as highly improbable by conventional interpretation.

Simply put, if political leaders had understood the mechanics of prosperity as they are understood here, neither the 2016 referendum nor the 2017 election might have been triggered at all.

Much the same can be said of other political “shocks”. When Mr Trump was elected in 2016, the average American was already $3,450 (7%) poorer than he or she had been back in 2005. The rise to power of insurgent parties in Italy cannot be unrelated to a 7.9% deterioration in personal prosperity since 2000.

As well as reframing interpretations of prosperity, SEEDS analysis also puts taxation in a different context. Between 2008 and 2018, per capita prosperity in France deteriorated by €1,650 which, at 5.8%, isn’t a particularly severe fall by Western standards. Over the same period, however, taxation increased, by almost €2,000 per person. At the level of discretionary, ‘left-in-your-pocket’ prosperity, then, the average French person is €3,640 (32%) worse off now than he or she was back in 2008.

This makes widespread popular support for the gilets jaunes protestors’ aims extremely understandable. Though no other country has quite matched the 32% deterioration in discretionary prosperity experienced in France, the Netherlands (with a fall of 25%) comes closest, which is why SEEDS identifies Holland as one of the likeliest locales for future protests along similar lines. It is far from surprising that insurgent (aka “populist”) parties have now stripped the Dutch governing coalition of its Parliamentary majority. Britain, where discretionary prosperity has fallen by 23% since 2008, isn’t far behind the Netherlands.

These considerations complicate political calculations. To be sure, the ‘centre right’ cadres that have dominated Western governments for more than three decades are heading for oblivion. Quite apart from deteriorating prosperity – something for which incumbencies are likely to get the blame – the popular perception has become one in which “austerity” has been inflicted on “the many” as the price of rescuing a wealthy “few”. It doesn’t help that many ‘conservatives’ continue to adhere to a ‘liberal’ economic philosophy whose abject failure has become obvious to almost everyone else.

This situation ought to favour the collectivist “left”, not least because higher taxation of “the rich” has been made inescapable by deteriorating prosperity. But the “left” continues to advocate higher levels of taxation and public spending, an agenda which is being invalidated by the erosion of the tax base which is a concomitant of deteriorating prosperity.

Moreover, the “left” seems unable to adapt to a shift towards prosperity issues and, in consequence, away from ideologically “liberal” social policy. Immigration, for example, is coming to be seen by the public as a prosperity issue, because of the perceived dilutionary effects of increases in population numbers.

The overall effect is that the political “establishment”, whether of “the right” or of the “the left”, is being left behind by trends to which that establishment is blinded by faulty economic interpretation.

The discrediting of established parties is paralleled by an erosion of trust in institutions and mechanisms, because these systems cannot keep pace with the rate at which popular priorities are changing. To give just one example, politicians who better understood the why of the “Brexit” referendum result would have been better equipped to recognize the dangers implicit in being perceived as trying to thwart or divert it.

The final point to be considered under the political and governmental heading is the destruction of pension provision. One of the little-noted side effects of “monetary adventurism” has been a collapse in rates of return on invested capital. According to the World Economic Forum, forward returns on American equities have fallen to 3.45% from a historic 8.6%, whilst returns on bonds have slumped from 3.6% to just 0.15%. It is small wonder, then, that the WEF identifies a gigantic, and rapidly worsening, “global pension timebomb”. As and when this becomes known to the public – and is contrasted by them with the favourable circumstances of a tiny minority of the wealthiest – popular discontent with established politics can be expected to reach new heights.

In short, established political elites are becoming an endangered species – and, far from knowing how to replace them, we have an institutionally-dangerous inability to appreciate the factors which have already made fundamental change inevitable.

Challenge #3 – an accelerating slump?

Everything described so far has been based on an interpretation which demonstrates an essentially gradual deterioration in prosperity. That, in itself, is serious enough – it threatens both a financial system predicated on perpetual growth, and political processes unable to recognise the implications of worsening public material well-being.

For context, SEEDS concludes that the average person in Britain, having become 11.5% less prosperous since 2003, is now getting poorer at rates of between 0.5% and 1.0% each year. EM economies, including both China and India, continue to enjoy growing prosperity, though this growth is now decreasing markedly, and is likely to go into reverse in the not-too-distant future.

Is it safe to assume, though, that prosperity will continue to erode gradually – or might be experience a rapid worsening in the rate of deterioration?

For now, no conclusive answer can be supplied on this point, but risk factors are considerable.

Here are just some of them:

1. The worsening trend in fossil fuel ECoEs is following a track that is exponential, not linear – and, as we have seen, there are likely to be limits to how far this can be countered by a switch to renewables.

2. The high probability of a financial crisis, differing both in magnitude and nature from GFC I, implies risks that there may be cross contamination to the real economy of goods, services, energy and labour.

3. Deteriorating prosperity poses a clear threat to rates of utilization, an important consideration given the extent to which both businesses and public services rely on high levels of capacity usage. Simple examples are a toll bridge or an airline, both of which spread fixed costs over a large number of users. Should utilization rates fall, continued viability would require increasing charges imposed on remaining users, since this is the only way in which fixed costs can be covered – but rising charges can be expected to worsen the rate at which utilization deteriorates.

4. Uncertainty in government, discussed above, may have destabilizing effects on economic activity.

There is a great deal more that could be said about “acceleration risk”, as indeed there is about the financial and governmental challenges posed by deteriorating prosperity.

But it is hoped that this discussion provides useful framing for some of the most important challenges ahead of us.

 

 

#146: Fire and ice, part three

SHAPING THE AGENDA

The project entitled Fire & Ice has had two very definite objectives. One is to make a synopsis of the economic and financial situation. The other is to start a debate about what the most appropriate responses might be. By “responses”, I wasn’t thinking of what individuals might do in preparation, though suggestions on this could be most valuable. Rather, the focus is on how the authorities might react to circumstances as they develop.

Of course, who “the authorities” might be when the challenge arises is less obvious than it might once have seemed. After more than three decades in the ascendancy, the ‘liberal globalist’ elites are in retreat. Political insurgents – a term which I prefer to the more loaded “populist” label – are bringing fresh ideas and new energy to the debate.

But it is far from clear that these newcomers have a grasp of economic reality that is any better than that of their ‘establishment’ opponents. They’re good at knowing what the public doesn’t like, but sketchy, at best, about what can realistically be offered instead.

I like to think that energy-based analysis of the economy provides answers to questions which baffle ‘conventional’ economic interpretation. I also like to think that we have both a coherent narrative and an effective model.

But where do we go from here?

The best place to start might be with a short list of the issues most demanding current attention. Five subjects dominate this list, and these are:

– The almost tangible pace of economic deterioration, most obviously (though by no means exclusively) in China.

– The complete bafflement of ‘the powers that be’ about the processes that are dismantling the established economic, social and political world-view.

– The looming crisis of a financial structure built on reckless credit and monetary adventurism.

– The rising anger of ‘ordinary’ people who, without knowing exactly how or why, suspect that they’ve been ‘taken for a ride’ by ‘the establishment’.

– The impending revelation that’s likely to boost popular anger to levels dwarfing anything yet experienced.

The big one – ‘hidden in plain sight’

The latter, highly incendiary issue is the unfolding failure of the ability to provide pensions to any but a super-wealthy minority. The collapse of returns on investment has crippled the viability of most employer and individual savings provision. Meanwhile, Tier 1 provision (which is financed directly out of taxation, rather than funded like private schemes) is already well on the way to becoming unaffordable, not least because – as we’ve seen in a previous discussion – tax revenues are leveraged to the ongoing deterioration in prosperity in almost all Western economies.

The disintegration of pension provision is a crisis ‘hidden in plain sight’. Back in 2017, the World Economic Forum called attention to a “global pensions timebomb”, calculating that, for a group of eight countries, a gap already standing at $67 trillion was set to reach $428tn by 2050. (You can find the WEF press release here, and it links to the report itself. Both should be mandatory reading).

The WEF made various worthy suggestions – including delaying retirement ages, and enhancing popular understanding of pensions systems – but these can do no more than scratch the surface of a problem caused by a collapse in returns which is itself a direct consequence of deliberate (though not necessarily voluntary) economic policy.

Broadly speaking, people in Western countries have a long-established expectation, which is that they’ll retire in their early 60s, and then receive a pension equivalent to about 70% of their final in-work incomes. We’re close to a point at which retirement before the age of 70 will become impossible to finance and, even then, it’s unlikely that the 70%-of-income benchmark will be affordable.

We’ll return to this subject later in this discussion. But the critical point is that the anger that will erupt when the public finds out about this is likely to be extreme.

The central issue

The best way to impose a structure on these disparate issues is to start with their common cause – a deterioration in prosperity that’s becoming impossible to disguise, and which the authorities themselves seem wholly unable to comprehend.

If you’re a regular visitor to this site, you’ll know that the central contention here is that the economy is an energy system, not a financial one. This interpretation is so obviously in keeping with the facts that it can be hard to comprehend the inability of ‘conventional’ thinkers to understand it.

For example, anyone who thinks that energy is ‘just another input’ should try picturing what would happen if the supply of energy to an economy was cut off, just for a few days, let alone for several months. Even an outage lasting days would bring the economy to a halt – and a few months without energy would induce economic and social collapse.

Those who contend that energy is ‘just a small percentage’ of economic output might reflect, first, that the foundations are ‘just a small percentage’ of a tower-block, but we wouldn’t build one without them. They might also try to name anything within the gamut of goods and services that can be produced without energy. Moreover, if energy did absorb a large proportion of the economy, the obvious inference is that the non-energy remainder would have to have shrunk dramatically. Additionally, of course, it’s becoming ever harder to believe that GDP numbers swelled by the spending of borrowed money are any kind of realistic denominator for calculating the proportionate role played by energy.

To be sure, it’s highly unlikely that energy supply to an economy would be cut off in its entirety (though it’s rather less unlikely that an economy could lose the ability to pay for it). But the point here is the centrality of energy to literally all economic activity. Equally, it’s surely obvious that the energy which drives all economic activity (other than the supply of energy itself) is surplus energy – that is, the energy to which we have access after we’ve deducted the energy consumed in the access process.

That equation is measured here using ECoE (the energy cost of energy). It is no coincidence at all that an exponential rise in the trend ECoEs of fossil fuels has paralleled the increasing use of financial adventurism –  the less generous might call it ‘manipulation’ – in futile efforts to stave off economic stagnation.

Of course, you can’t fix the ECoE problem by pouring cheap credit and cheaper money into the system, but what you can achieve is the creation of enormous bubbles which are destined to burst, scattering debris right across the financial and economic landscape.

Optimists assert that we needn’t worry about the ECoE problem with oil, gas and coal, because we can transition to renewable energy sources. This claim might be a valid one, though the weight of evidence strongly suggests otherwise. Where the optimists do depart completely from reality is in the assertion that this transition can happen seamlessly, without any check to “growth”, without any noticeable disruption and, needless to say, without any hardship which might weaken the economic or social status quo.

Irrespective of where transition to renewables might take us in the future, the issues now are twofold. The first is that the rising trend in ECoEs is being reflected in a squeeze in prosperity, a process which is often labelled “secular stagnation”, but which is proving impossible to counter using the conventional tool of financial stimulus.

The second is that exercises in denial have created ever-growing imbalances within the financial system, imbalances which are manifesting themselves, not just in asset price bubbles and in excessive indebtedness, but in credit dependency, and in the destruction of pension provision.

These constitute specific risks, which are modeled by SEEDS, and might be addressed in a subsequent analysis. For now, though, here are the risk categories identified by the model:

Debt risk. This is calibrated by comparing debt with prosperity, rather than with the increasingly unrealistic GDP benchmark.

Credit dependency. This is a measure of annual rates of borrowing, and identifies exposure to any squeeze in, or cessation of, the continuity of credit.

Systemic exposure. This assesses contagion risk by measuring the scale of financial assets in proportion to prosperity.

Acquiescence risk. This measure looks at how rapidly personal prosperity has fallen, and is continuing to fall. The aim here is to assess the extent to which arduous ‘rescue plans’, which might be labelled ‘restorative austerity’, are likely to meet with popular opposition.

Primed to detonate

The pensions problem is critical here, for two quite distinct reasons. The first is that the creation of the pensions “timebomb” tells us a very great deal about economic abnormality, and the grotesque failure of policy.

The second is that this “timebomb” might detonate in the foundations of the current system of governance. It certainly has the potential to dwarf all other popular grievances.

According to the WEF study, the pensions gap in the United States stood at $27.8tn in 2015. It is growing at a real compound rate of about 4.7% annually, and is likely to have reached almost $32tn by the end of last year. In Britain, a number stated at $8tn (£5.25tn) for 2015 is growing by more than 4% each year, and is likely now to be well over £7tn. In both instances, the rate at which the gap is widening far exceeds any remotely realistic rate of growth in GDP.

As regular readers know, reported GDP is flattered by the spending of huge amounts of borrowed money, and ignores the critical issue of ECoE. For 2018, SEEDS estimates American aggregate prosperity at $14.7tn, significantly smaller than GDP of $20.5tn. British prosperity is calculated at £1.47tn last year, compared with GDP of £2tn.

This means that, in the United States, the pension gap has already reached 210% of prosperity (and 155% of GDP), and is likely to reach 300% of prosperity by 2026.

In Britain, it’s likely that the gap is already over 470% of prosperity, and will reach 660% by 2026. This financial ‘hostage to the future’ is in addition to debt put at 365% of prosperity. Moreover, financial assets (a measure of the size of the financial system) are estimated at close to 1600% of British prosperity (and about 1125% of GDP). This looks a potentially lethal cocktail for any economy founded on ultra-cheap credit and a fiat monetary system

There are two main reasons for the truly frightening rates at which pension gaps have emerged, and the equally worrying rates at which they are increasing. First, the ability to fund state-provided pensions is coming under tightening pressure because of the leveraged impact of adverse prosperity trends on the scope for taxation.

The second is the collapse of returns on invested capital. According to the WEF report, historic returns of 8.6% on US equities and 3.6% on bonds have now slumped to, respectively, 3.45% and just 0.15% on a forward basis. This makes it wholly impossible, not just in America but across the world, for private investment to fill any part of the widening chasm in state provision.

The collapse in rates of return is the clincher here, and is a direct consequence of the adoption of ZIRP (zero interest rate policy). Put simply, the pensions “timebomb” is something that we’ve wished on ourselves through monetary policy. Introduced back in 2008, the supposedly “temporary” and “emergency” policy expedient of ZIRP has already long-outlasted the duration of the Second World War, and there’s no prospect, now or later, of a return to “normal” rates (which can be thought of as rates exceeding inflation by at least 2.5%).

Policies like ZIRP need to be interpreted as economic signals, sometimes (as now) determined less by voluntary policy decision than by the force of circumstances. The ‘force of circumstances’ which dictated the adoption of ZIRP was a debt mountain which borrowers had become wholly unable to service at normal rates of interest.

It’s vital to note that ZIRP wasn’t something chosen capriciously by the authorities. Rather, it was an expedient forced upon them by economic conditions. Behind the apparent “borrow, don’t save” signal represented by ZIRP lies a structural signal, which is that “the economy can no longer afford saving”. When that happens, it’s the economic equivalent of the way in which some ships or aeroplanes can be kept operational by cannibalizing others.

Politically, there’s no way out of this which doesn’t inflame popular anger. Historically, as mentioned earlier, people in Western countries have assumed that they will retire in their early 60s, receiving, in retirement, roughly 70% of the income they earned at the close of their working lives. The sums here suggest that even raising retirement ages to 70 won’t keep the 70% target affordable.

I’ll leave you to reflect on what the reaction is likely to be when the plight of the “ordinary” person becomes known, and is contrasted with the circumstances of a privileged minority. However, any political establishment which supposes that, whilst pensions become unaffordable for most, a minority can continue retire on generous incomes, and with the cushion of substantial accumulated wealth, is guilty of very dangerous self-deception.

Crunch point

The harsh reality is that we’ve built systems – financial, economic, social and political – which can only function when prosperity is growing. These systems can survive recessions, or even depressions, presupposing that neither is unduly protracted, and is followed by a return to growth. When – as now – that doesn’t happen, the promises that we made to ourselves in order to weather the bad times rapidly become incapable of being honoured.

Ultimately, any financial system is a set of promises, and functions only if those promises can be kept.

It has to be glaringly obvious, too, that the historic cushion of growing prosperity has enabled us to indulge in luxuries that are now becoming unaffordable. The term “luxuries” doesn’t refer to trinkets like gadgets, expensive holidays and the two- or three-car family. Rather, it refers to assumptions and practices that can no longer be afforded.

High on this list lies the indulgence of ideological extremism in economic organisation. If there was ever a time when society could afford either the fanaticism of “nationalising everything”, or the contrary fanaticism of “privatising everything”, that time passed at least two decades ago. What is required now is the pragmatism which surely leads to the “horses for courses” preference for a mixed economy, in which both the state and private enterprise concentrate on what each does best.

Other luxuries that we can no longer afford include massive gaps between the poorest and the wealthiest. This was an affordable luxury when everyone was getting a little more prosperous with each passing year. When your own circumstances are improving, it’s not difficult to accept the extreme wealth of your neighbour – but this tolerance will dissolve very quickly indeed when exposed to the solvent of generally deteriorating prosperity.

This, through its direct link to political insurgency (aka “populism”), brings us back to the immediate situation. Public dissatisfaction has thus far been fueled by discontents likely to be dwarfed by anger yet to come, as inflated asset prices explode and the reality of deteriorating prosperity can no longer be disguised. The Chinese economy, which has accounted for 36% of all global growth since 2008, is now deteriorating markedly, the inevitable fate of any system founded on truly reckless rates of borrowing. “Growth” of 6-7% ceases to impress when you have to borrow about 25% of GDP each year to make it happen.

Few Western economies are in much better condition, yet politicians continue to promise “growth”, and remain in ignorance about the trends that are making such promises an absurdity. Perhaps the greatest risk of all is that lessons not learned in 2008 will be no better understood in the next (and much larger) crisis described here as GFC II.

Stir the pensions reality into that mix and the result is an inflammable cocktail. We may know that current incumbencies cannot adapt to the new realities, but the insurgents have yet to demonstrate a better grasp of reality.

Where we need to go next is to start helping craft a programme which, whilst it cannot remove impending challenges, might at least enable us to adjust to them.

= = = = =

#146 pensions returns 03

 

#145: Fire and ice, part two

“THE JUGGERNAUT EFFECT”

Although it was something of a detour from the theme of fire and ice, our previous discussion about “Brexit” does have one point of relevance to that theme. Here’s why.

All things considered, there seems to be an utterly compelling case for intervention in the dysfunctional “Brexit” process by the “adults” in European governments. Yet, even at this very late stage, no such intervention has happened. Governments seem to see no alternative to letting London and Brussels – but mostly Brussels – make a complete hash of the whole process. Indeed, only now do the governments of the countries most affected (Ireland and France) seem even to be implementing contingency plans for an adverse outcome.

Of course, you might jump to the conclusion that irrationality reigns in European capitals, and especially in Dublin and Paris. But it’s surely obvious that this is part of a much wider process, one which we can think of as a form of shock-paralysis.

Essentially, the idea explored here is that governments around the world have been paralysed into inaction, not so much by fear alone as by a simple inability to understand what’s happening around them. Nothing, it seems to them, is happening rationally. They don’t really understand why so many amongst the general public are so angry – and they certainly don’t even begin to understand what’s happening to the economy.

I call this shock-paralysis “the juggernaut effect”.

Shock-paralysis

The word “juggernaut” seems to derive from Sanskrit, and refers to an enormous waggon carrying the image of a Hindu god. The figurative meaning is of an irresistible force, flattening anyone foolish enough to stand in its way.

Rationally, you’d think that anybody standing in the path of a “juggernaut” ought to be making every effort to escape. But it’s quite likely that shock, fear and incomprehension will have a paralysing effect, overwhelming rational faculties, leaving him or her rooted to the spot.

That’s a useful way to describe the effects that current economic (and broader) trends are having. It doesn’t just apply to governments, of course, and it’s prevalent amongst the general public, too.

Just as the person standing in front of the “juggernaut” is all too well aware of its lethality, today’s leaders and opinion-formers surely know at least something about the financial, economic, political and social forces converging on them.

But they seem incapable of doing anything about it.

A big part of this paralysis is incomprehension – any problem becomes infinitely harder to tackle if you don’t understand why it’s happening. And there are reasons enough for policy-makers, and ‘ordinary’ people too, to feel completely baffled.

The irrational economy

You don’t need to be a committed Keynesian – indeed, you need only numeracy – to understand the basic principles of economic stimulus.

If economic performance is sluggish, activity can be stimulated by pushing liquidity into the system, either through fiscal or through monetary policy. If too much stimulus is injected, though, there’s a risk that the economy will overheat, with growth exceeding the sustainable trend. Rising inflation is one of the most obvious symptoms of an over-heating economy.

Here, though, is the conundrum, for anyone trying to understand how the economy is performing.

Since the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC I), the authorities have pushed unprecedentedly enormous amounts of stimulus into the system.

We ought, long before now, to have experienced overheating, with growth rising to levels far above trend.

This simply hasn’t happened.

This should have been accompanied by surging inflation, most obviously in commodities like energy, minerals and food, but across the whole gamut of goods and services, too, with wage rates rising rapidly as prices soar.

Again, this simply hasn’t happened.

To be sure, there’s been dramatic inflation in asset prices, and that’s both important and dangerous. But the broader point is that neither super-heated growth, nor a surge in price and wage inflation, have turned up, as logic, experience and basic mathematics all tell us that they should.

Pending final data for 2018, it’s likely that global GDP last year will have been about 34% higher than it was back in 2008. Allowing for the increase in population numbers, GDP per capita is likely to have been about 20% larger in 2018 than it was ten years previously. This isn’t exactly super-heated growth. According to SEEDS, world inflation stands at about 2.5% which, again, is nowhere near the levels associated with an over-heating economy. Far from soaring, the prices of commodities such as oil are in the doldrums.

Price (and other) data is telling us that the economy has stagnated. But the quantity of stimulus injected for more than a decade says that it should be doing precisely the opposite.

There can be no doubt whatsoever about the scale of stimulus. The usual number attached to sums created through QE by central banks is in the range $26-30 trillion, but that’s very much a narrow definition of stimulus. Ultra-loose monetary policy, combined with not inconsiderable fiscal deficits, have been at the heart of an unprecedented wave of stimulus.

Expressed in PPP-converted dollars at constant values (the convention used throughout this analysis), governments have borrowed about $39tn, and the private sector about $71tn, since 2008. On top of that, we’ve wound down pension provision in an alarming way, as part of the broader effects of pricing money at negative real levels, which destroys returns on invested capital.

Even if we confine ourselves to QE and borrowing, however, stimulus since 2008 can be put pretty conservatively at $140tn.

That’s roughly 140% of where world PPP GDP was back in 2008. You might think of it as the injection of 12-14% of GDP each year for a decade.

That’s an unprecedentedly gigantic exercise in stimulus.

And the result? In contrast to at least $140tn of stimulus, world GDP is perhaps $34tn higher now than it was ten years previously. Price and wage inflation is subdued, and the prices of sensitive commodities have sagged. The prices of assets such as stocks, bonds and property have indeed soared – but one or more crashes will take care of that.

By now – indeed, long before now – anyone in government ought to have been asking his or her expert advisers to explain what on earth is going on. Assuming that Keynes wasn’t mistaken (and simple mathematics proves that he wasn’t), the only frank answer those advisers can give is that they just don’t understand what’s been happening.

Questions without answers?

The utter failure of gigantic stimulus to spur the economy into super-heated growth (and surging inflation) is reason enough for baffled paralysis. But there are plenty of other irrationalities to add to the mix.

If you were in government, or for that matter in business or finance, then as well as asking your advisers about the apparent total breakdown in the stimulus mechanism, you might want to put these questions to them, too:

– Why has a capitalist economic system become dependent on negative real returns on capital?

– Why, since the shock therapy of the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC I), have we accelerated the pace at which we’re adding to the debt mountain?

– Why, seemingly heedless of all past experience, have we felt it necessary to pour vast amounts of cheap money into the system?

– Why have the prices of assets (including stocks, bonds and property) soared to levels impossible to reconcile with the fundamentals of valuation?

– Why has China, reputedly the world’s primary engine of growth, found it necessary to resort to borrowing on a gargantuan scale?

This last question deserves some amplification. Pending final data, we can estimate that Chinese debt has increased to about RMB 220tn now, from less than RMB 53tn (at 2018 values) at the start of 2008. These numbers exclude what are likely to be very large quantities of debt created in what might most politely be called the country’s “informal” credit system.

So, why does an economy supposedly growing at between 6% and 7% annually need to do much borrowing at all?  Put another way, how meaningful is “growth” in GDP of 6-7%, when you have to borrow about 25% of GDP annually, just to keep it going?

And this prompts several more questions. For starters, why are the Chinese authorities, hitherto esteemed for their financial conservatism, presiding over the transformation of their economy into a debt-ponzi? Second, can ‘the mystique of the east’ explain why the world’s markets are seemingly either ignorant, and/or complacent, about the creation of a financial time-bomb in China?

The juggernaut effect

Even these questions don’t exhaust the almost endless list of disconnects in our increasingly surreal economic plight, but they surely give us more than enough explanations for the paralysing “juggernaut effect” in the corridors of power.

Put yourself, if you will, into the shoes of someone trying to formulate policy. Two things are obvious to you, and either one of them would be a grave worry. Together, they’re enough to overwhelm rational calculation.

First, you know that there are some very, very dangerous trends out there. In the purely financial arena, you’re aware that debt has become excessive, whilst the system seems to have become reliant on a never-ending tide of cheap credit.

If your intellectual leanings are towards market economics, you’ll also have realised that pricing money at rates below inflation amounts to an enormous subsidy. Politically, that subsidy is going to the wrong people. If you came into government with business experience, you’ll also know that we’ve witnessed the destruction of returns on capital, which makes no kind of sense from any business or investment point of view.

You might know, too, that the viability of pension provision has collapsed, creating what the World Economic Forum has called “a global pensions timebomb”. If the public ever finds out about that, the reaction could dwarf whatever political travails you might happen to have at the moment.

Lastly – on your short-list of nightmares – is the strong possibility that some event, as yet unknown, will trigger a wave of defaults and a collapse in the prices of property and other assets.

Your second worry, perhaps even bigger than your list of risks, is that you don’t really understand any of this. Your economic advisers can’t explain why stimulus, though carried to (and far beyond) the point of danger, hasn’t worked as the textbooks (and all prior experience) say it should. If there’s anything worse than a string of serious problems and challenges, it’s a complete lack of understanding.

Without understanding, the policy cupboard is bare. You don’t know what to do next, because anything you do might have results that don’t match expectations, making matters worse rather than better.

It might be better to do nothing.

In short, you feel as though you’re making it up as you go along, in the virtual certainty that something horribly unpleasant is going to hit you, with little or no prior warning.

Welcome to “the juggernaut effect”.